Combating systemic racism and bias often begins with addressing it on an individual level. We recently caught up with Dean Charney to provide his lens on racism and bias in our community, and what lengths we are willing to go to undo its effects in the health professions. 

Q: Why are racism and bias important to you personally?

Racism and bias are deeply important to me on many levels. I grew up in a home where bias of any kind was unacceptable. My parents were passionate about the respect and dignity that all people deserved. They expected the same from me and my siblings. They would not tolerate any prejudice or bigotry, so from that perspective, concern about racism is in my DNA.

In my life as an athlete, I spent countless hours competing against athletes of all ethnic groups, races, and colors. I always admired the people I played with for their talent and camaraderie, but also for their resilience and drive. Basketball created a level playing field for us. And yet I was also keenly aware that I while played for the pleasure of the game and the joy of competition, many of my Black friends played ball as a way out of a life that was far more difficult and complicated than my own.

In my scientific life I have done a great deal of research on resilience. One of the populations I studied was the Black community living around Howard Medical Center. I saw firsthand how they dealt with, and rose above, the trauma of stereotypes and racism, their lack of privilege, their poverty, and almost daily abuse. I learned a great deal from these people and came to admire them as heroes and role models.

Finally, when I was at the National Institute of Mental Health I took the opportunity to make a difference and was awarded a distinction in Diversity and Advocacy for my efforts to address workforce equity and create a work environment that was free of bias.

Q: Why are racism and bias important to our medical school?

As leaders we have several major responsibilities. One of them is to train the best and brightest future physicians and physician-scientists of all races and from all backgrounds. We do most of our learning from each other, and there’s no doubt that diversity enhances our ability to learn by exposing us to roads we have not traveled.

Understanding and addressing racism and bias also helps make us better doctors by allowing us relate to all patients, what they’re dealing with, and the impact racism is having on their health. We must understand bias and racism, name it, and correct it if we’re going to do our very best to serve society as great clinicians and great researchers.


Q: How deep does this problem go?

We see racism and bias play out in our environment in many ways that are obvious, from health care disparities, to the lack of faculty of color, to the absence of equity in the way students of color are supported and evaluated. But the root of the problem is much deeper and lies within the underlying structures and cultural norms that are at the heart of medical schools and academic health centers.

Q: How deep are we willing to go to address this problem and “undo” racism and bias?

We will go as deep as possible in order to transform our culture and our values so that they’re aligned with our goal of eliminating racism and bias at the School of Medicine. This will mean rethinking everything we do, and applying a lens of equity and justice that will benefit all our students, staff, faculty, and patients.